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This Halloween: What Does It Mean To Call Something 'Spooky'?
A runner passes a ghostly sculpture on display between Bondi Beach and Tamarama Beach in Sydney. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images hide caption
A runner passes a ghostly sculpture on display between Bondi Beach and Tamarama Beach in Sydney.
So, you're at your friend's elaborately decorated Halloween party. There are cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, bloody handprints on the wall, a frothing potion brewing on the stove. It's creepy! And scary! But is it ... spooky?
Sure, "spook" can refer to a ghost. It can refer to a spy. But as many of us know, it's also, sometimes, a racial slur for black people. One of our Ask Code Switch readers wrote in to ask about the etiquette of using words like spook and spooky.
During this, the season of murder mysteries and haunted hayrides, is it insensitive to say that you were spooked?
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So here's the deal: Spook comes from the Dutch word for apparition, or specter. The noun was first used in English around the turn of the nineteenth century. Over the next few decades, it developed other forms, like spooky, spookish, and of course, the verb, to spook.
From there, it seems, the word lived a relatively innocuous life for many years, existing in the liminal space between surprise and mild fear.
It wasn't until World War II that spook started to refer to black people . The black Army pilots who trained at the Tuskegee Institute were referred to as the "Spookwaffe" — waffe being the German word for weapon, or gun. (Luftwaffe was the name of the German air force).
Once the word "spook" was linked to blackness, it wasn't long before it became a recognizable — if second-tier — slur.
But that wasn't the end of the story for spook. The word had a bit of a renaissance in the 1970s, with the release of the novel and classic film, The Spook Who Sat By The Door , by Sam Greenlee .
Both the book and movie tell the fictional story of the first black man recruited and trained by the CIA. That man goes through his training, works for a little while, and then quits his job and moves back to Chicago, where he secretly trains a group of young black "freedom fighters."
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The title of the movie, of course, both refers to spook meaning "black person" and spook meaning "spy." And as a satirical piece of literature written by an African-American author in the years following the civil rights movement, the use of "spook" was infused with an extra dose of irony.
Renee Blake is a sociolinguist who studies the way language is used in society, "whether it's based on race, class, gender or the like." She says she doesn't hear the word spook all that often, but she does have two salient reference points for it.
The first is The Spook Who Sat By The Door , and the second is the 2000 book and 2003 movie The Human Stain, by Phillip Roth. His novel tells the story of a professor at a New England college who is forced to resign after he calls two African-American students spooks.
The word spook hasn't just gotten fictional people in trouble. In 2010, Target apologized for selling a Halloween toy called "Spook Drop Parachuters" — literally miniature black figurines with orange parachutes.
In light of all this baggage, I asked Blake what she thought about the use of words like spook and spooky during Halloween. She said that, while it's clear that spook has multiple, distinct meanings, it's still important to think about context.
The way that certain words get attached to particular racial groups is incredibly complicated. ( Take thug , for example .)
"Be thoughtful about the fact that [spook] now might have the connotation of referring to a black person in a disparaging way," Blake says. "If someone says, 'Did you get spooked?' and there are no black people there, then, OK, you mean 'Did you get scared or frightened?' That's fine, I get it."
But once you insert black people into the situation, Blake says, it's important to be more tactful. "We know that the word 'niggardly' doesn't mean a black person, but let's be sensitive. Are you going to use the word niggardly in front of a group of young students in a classroom? No."
So, this Halloween, be a little cautious when it comes to describing your surroundings. And don't be afraid of creeping into the thesaurus for a spooky synonym.
To me, it's more fun to be aghast, bloodcurdled, or spine-chilled than "spooked."
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Informal . a ghost ; specter .
Slang . a ghostwriter .
Slang . an eccentric person.
Slang : Extremely Disparaging and Offensive . a contemptuous term used to refer to a Black person.
Slang . an espionage agent; spy .
to haunt; inhabit or appear in or to as a ghost or specter.
Informal . to frighten; scare .
Informal . to become frightened or scared: The fish spooked at any disturbance in the pool.
Origin of spook
Usage note for spook, other words from spook.
- spook·er·y, noun
- spookish, adjective
Words Nearby spook
- spontaneous recovery
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023
How to use spook in a sentence
And he just so happens to be the hardest-working spook on the planet.
Few people knew better than Orson Welles how to spook an entire country.
Authorities in Moscow claim to have arrested an American spook wearing wigs and carrying an incriminating letter.
A third test will, therefore, further spook nervous allies and create a new sense of vulnerability among Americans.
From suave Jack Ryan to smarmy Eugene Kittridge, potential candidates for America's next top spook .
More than with the " spook ," however, was the public mind agitated by other rumors which touched upon "south meadow."
A speck is a minute spot, and among the ancients a speck or dot within a circle was the symbol of the central spook or Spectre.
It gets me what she was doing in that spook place alone at night.
How do you connect this gentlemanly spook with the treasure, your Excellency?
I think there is more in this spook story than Colonel McClure knows of, or, at least, will admit.
British Dictionary definitions for spook
/ ( spuːk ) informal /
a ghost or a person suggestive of this
US and Canadian a spy
Southern African slang any pale or colourless alcoholic spirit : spook and diesel
to frighten : to spook horses ; to spook a person
(of a ghost) to haunt
Derived forms of spook
- spookish , adjective
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
Is 'spooky' season insensitive? What to know about the word's racist origins, etiquette
As temperatures cool down and scary Halloween decor goes up, it seems fitting to call October "spooky" season. However, hurtful connotations associated with the word raise questions of etiquette.
During the season of murder mysteries and haunted hayrides, is it insensitive to say that you were spooked?
According to NPR, spook comes from the Dutch word for apparition, or specter. The noun was first used in English around the turn of the nineteenth century.
From there, the word lived a harmless life, but in World War II, white American soldiers started referring to their Black counterparts as "spooks," Newsweek reports.
The Black Army pilots who trained at the Tuskegee Institute were referred to as the "Spookwaffe" — a play on the German air force's Luftwaffe.
Once the word "spook" was linked to race, it wasn't long before it became a recognizable slur.
Sociolinguist Renee Blake told NPR that the word "spook" isn't used too often in modern times, but there are a few recent examples tying it to racial implications.
The first is a book-then-movie "The Spook Who Sat by the Door," by Sam Greenlee, which depicts a man treated as a "token Black person" when hired by the CIA. The second is the 2000 book and 2003 movie "The Human Stain," by Phillip Roth. His novel tells the story of a professor at a New England college who is forced to resign after he calls two African-American students spooks.
The word spook hasn't just gotten fictional people in trouble. In 2010, Target apologized for selling a Halloween toy called "Spook Drop Parachuters" — literally miniature black figurines with orange parachutes. And in 2018, an elementary school in North Carolina came under fire when a student came home with "spook" and "gook" ― an offensive term to people of East and Southeast Asian descent ― on his list of vocabulary words to memorize.
While it's clear that "spook" has multiple, distinct meanings, Blake told NPR that it's still important to think about context.
"Be thoughtful about the fact that [spook] now might have the connotation of referring to a Black person in a disparaging way," Blake told NPR. "If someone says, 'Did you get spooked?' and there are no Black people there, then, OK, you mean 'Did you get scared or frightened?' That's fine, I get it."
Oxford University Press's Academic Insights for the Thinking World
Spooky Halloween: the origin of “spook”
Word Origins And How We Know Them
Anatoly Liberman's column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist , appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS .
- By Anatoly Liberman
- October 20 th 2021
I am not sure whether this year hordes of masked children will be roaming my neighborhood on 31 October, but in anticipation of this great event, I listened to the suggestion of my editor to write something connected with the great day and am doing so two weeks ahead of time.
The word spook surfaced in the nineteenth century in American English and is believed to be of Dutch origin. Its alleged source is Dutch spook , pronounced with the vowel of English awe . German has Spuk , also taken from a northern ( Low German ) dialect. Similar words in the Scandinavian languages must have had the same source. If the accepted derivation of spook is correct, the English word must be of bookish, rather than colloquial, origin, because spook , borrowed from oral speech, would have become spoke or something like it. Also, Dutch words in English are usually much older. There is a Swiss verb zerspäuken “to be haunted by ghosts.” The vowels do not match, but in such “emotional” words, sounds often vary in a haphazard manner. Modern dictionaries unanimously call the so-called ultimate origin of this group undiscovered.
The problem is that we know too much about this ghostly company rather than too little. All over the place, we can see similar words without initial s -, for example, Old English pūca “little boy,” which makes us think of Puck ( see the post for 20 February 2008 ). Opinions differ about the connection between Puck and s pook . Obviously, in such words we cannot hide behind the ever-helpful s-mobile , an enigmatic prefix that occurred in old words of Indo-European origin, even though some good language historians resorted to it in dealing with more modern words. For example, it has once been suggested that slang is lang -, with s- added as a prefix (most probably a hopeless etymology, regardless of s-mobile ). As will become clear later, Puck and spook may be connected, even if vaguely.
How can a ghost (any ghost) get its name, and why is the etymology of bogymen, gremlins, goblins, and spooks usually unknown? Could some of them be taboo words? (Do not call a spook by its real name, then it won’t hear it, and you needn’t be afraid of its visit.) Hostile giants of Scandinavian myths had four names. At least two of them have not been explained. Rísi is especially irritating, because its cognate , the German word Riese , is still very much alive; yet no one can explain where it came from. Spook has been once dismissed as a substrate word, a loan from some ancient indigenous language. This dead-end etymology looks clever but is just a coy way of saying: “Origin unknown.”
What do spooks of all types do? Apparently, they frighten people, have a terrible appearance, make a lot of noise, and portend disaster when seen. A few names were probably invented by adults to frighten little children. The Greek source of giant was gigant -, as seen in English gigantic . Who was giga , a distant cousin of English boogey and Russian buka ? Did they shout gigi , giga , boo , boog , and the like? “Go to sleep, you naughty child, or giga ~ buka will come and fetch you.” Does a fetch come and fetch its victims? Another puzzling thing is that quite a few such words are known in many unrelated languages, Germanic and Finnish, for instance.
Let us look at some English words beginning with sp -. The verb spit is probably expressive, in some way imitating the sound one makes when “ejecting saliva.” Spew is common Germanic (fourth-century Gothic had it too). Latin spuere sounds like Old English spīwan , and so does Greek ptūein (allegedly, from spūtein ). Even speak may be of similar origin! This verb seems to have had r in the root. Its German cognate sp r echen resembles Old Icelandic spraka “to crackle.” English spark , if anyone is interested, is a word “of unknown origin.” Speak ~ sprechen seem to have arisen as expressions for a powerful statement. English spurn and Latin spernere “to scorn” may belong here too. All those words have been grouped as belonging together more than a hundred years ago.
What could be the ancient function of sp -? Did the language game begin with spittle and its alleged magic qualities? Spewing, spitting, spilling, spattering… Let us not forget spit(ting) ~ spit (and) image of one’s father ( sp ittle was associated with sp erm ). Speed meant “good fortune, success” (compare may God speed you ; good speed ), and its cognates, like Latin spēs “hope,” are close. Spat “oyster” and spat “quarrel” are words “of unknown origin.” The same holds for spate (its original meaning is “flood”). Spook is, rather obviously, an invented word for a goblin. Sp – attaches itself easily to expressive words. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that spoof was coined “for fun.” With all the diffidence required in such situations, I would like to suggest that spook is a noun, whose form was meant to frighten, and the frightening part was sp -. Such conjectures are impossible to prove, and it is much easier to hide behind the formula “of unknown or substrate origin” (incidentally, in the substrate language, the sp -association may have been the same as in Indo-European ). Given my approach, the origin will remain “unknown,” because a guess is a guess, but this guess at least provides a context: speak , spill , spit , spew , spark , spat , and the rest.
Now back to the mischievous Puck. In the environment of this word, we find pat ~ patter , peep (two meanings), peg (the latter again of obscure Low German or Dutch origin), pet , pit , pick , pat , and so forth. Some such words, for example, pip (a spot on a paying card) are expressive, like most words beginning with and ending in the same consonant, and some are sound-imitating ( onomatopoeic ). But so are also puff , pap , plump , pit-a-pat , and pop . The verb put emerged with the sense “push, thrust.” Push , pull , poke (the alleged source of puck in hockey), and pule are not far behind.
I have cited only such words as are well- or fairly well-known. As noted, demons, ghosts, and their kin are supposed to frighten people by puffing up and making a lot of noise. Puck is a tolerably good sound-imitating complex. For example, Russian puk – means “fart.” Both senses—“puff up” and “make a lot of noise”—often merge. I see no reason why Puck, as well as his Scandinavian and Celtic look-alikes, could not mean “a noisy creature ready to burst,” like Rumpelstilzchen (or Rumpelstiltskin) , who concealed his name! Whether Puck emerged as a direct continuation of Old English pūca is a fact of no importance. Such formations arise, disappear, and are coined again in many parts of the world. Severe statements to the effect that spook and Puck have nothing to do with each other should probably be tempered, even if slightly.
It is curious to observe that the hotbed of many words mentioned above is Middle Dutch or Low German. Note that the spelling of the word ghost (with its unexpected gh -) seems also to be of Flemish origin. Thus, both spook and ghost came to English (at least partly) from the same region. A classic case of double Dutch.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction . His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist , appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected] ; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS .
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I had heard that the “h” got into English “goostly” (“spirituous”) because Caxton employed Flemish typesetters. MIght this be so?
A timely piece indeed! I must admit, I believe no sound-imitation was involved in this case, though as you say some haphazard variation is to be expected. I offer you a much condensed version of a different etymology.
To start, in Early Modern Dutch the words spook and spoken also meant ‘omen’ and ‘to divine’ respectively, senses which were longer preserved in the forms voorspook and voorspoken . Moreover, the 15th century Vocabularium Latino-Theutonicum (a.k.a. Teuthonista ) has a feminine spoke ‘wizardry, divination’.
After examining all the regional forms, such as Low German spouk in the dialect of Groningen (where ou reliably continues Germanic *ō ), I have concluded that the original form was most likely *spōk- . This would fit an ablaut relation with Old Norse spakr ‘wise’ and Middle Dutch spaken ‘spiegelen, een voorbeeld nemen’. That is to say, *spōk- and spakr can be explained as derivations of *spakōną , the precursor of spaken .
In turn, the lot is best connected with Old Norse spá ‘prophecy’ and German spähen ‘to see’, of the root *speh- . As is known, that continues Indo-European *speḱ- ‘to see, look, observe’. In Latin, the same root is found in spectrum ‘appearance; apparition’, a word which ended up as English specter ‘apparition, ghost’.
Admittedly, *spakōną has an unexpected *k instead of *h if it is to belong to this root. I propose that it arose through paradigm leveling of an intensive/iterative verb *spakkōþi ‘he/she sees’, *spagunanþi ‘they see’, from *spoḱ-néh₂-ti, *spoḱ-nh₂-énti , itself with *kk by Kluge’s law.
Correction: spaken was Early Modern Dutch, not Middle Dutch.
Thank you for an interesting article. I have to admit that I find Olivier van Renswoude’s explanation quite convincing – so thank you also for that.
[…] October 20, 2021, I wrote a post on the origin of the word spook. In a comment, a Dutch scholar offered his etymology of it. He derived the word from the root of […]
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